Over at New APPS, Catarina links to and comments on a New Scientist article about fMRIs and female sexuality. When my comment grew to be so unwieldy (sigh), I decided to post it over here instead…

Mmm, interesting post – thanks Catarina! And Mark, you’re entirely right… but I think this point has more to say in this context…

Whilst I understand and also reject the Freudian model of understanding ‘mature’ female sexual pleasure (a thesis shocking in its persistent) as lying in being a ‘lodging place for the penis’ (as Irigaray puts it), I’m also hesitant about suggesting that female sexual pleasure arises primarily from the clitoris and that this is unsurprising because it is the homologue with the penis. Again this seems to centre a very particular masculine imagining of sexual pleasure (one, I might add, not necessarily experienced by all men), with feminine versions then imagined as a mirror image. I understand not wanting to buy into a Freudian model, but as Irigaray points out, challenging Freud lies not just in saying ‘my sex is not nothing’, nor ‘my sex is one’, but in elaborating a feminine experience of multiple sites of pleasure, sites which are both distinct and unable to be fully distinguished. The acknowledgement that nipples might also activate ‘genital regions’ (it wasn’t clear to me whether this meant the apparently clearly distinct vaginal or clitoral areas) seems to me to appeal interestingly to such ideas.

Part of the reason I find Irigaray’s focus on the multiple interesting is because it also helps do justice to the voices of other women, who are often treated as if they – like all those immature women out there failing to have vaginal orgasms! – must be, as Mark put it in comments on Catarina’s post, lying. One example is those women who have experienced some form of genital cutting, as Catarina alludes to in the post linked to above. There are a thousand different elements to the debate about female genital cutting, but voices claiming sexual pleasure, like those of the women in this study,  are often dismissed (see also Njambi’s assessment of the how and why these debates often play out this way). There are lots of ways of considering how sexual pleasure can occur in these situations – and the authors focus on the way that, as Catarina pointed out, clitoral tissue is ‘iceberg-like’, spread far further below the surface than most acknowledge. This is legitimate and even expected from scientific types, but it is also probably worth analysing how the experience of erogenousness might be modified by changes to the body.  ( I’ll note that ‘activation’ in the fMRI linked to above can’t really, as far as I understand, be equated with ‘being turned on’ except through the subjective experience of the individual woman – the ones whose accounts, it would seem, may not be able to be fully trusted unlike the Truthiness of the colourful scans – but this is an ongoing issue with fMRI studies, as far as I can tell).

But I also think that the experiences of those with spinal cord injuries have something to contribute here. There’s some evidence [pdf] that orgasmic stimulation does not necessarily, in all cases, require direct contact with the genitals: other parts of the body, such as the skin above the site of spinal cord injury may become intensely erogenous, even to the point of producing orgasm; and in certain cases, women can experience ‘thought orgasms’ with no physical stimulation whatever. Such orgasms are only sometimes experienced as ‘connected’ to genitalia (in much the same way as the nipple example above, I think?) but the fMRI, despite the initial dubiousness of the neuroscientists – because let’s not just actually believe people when they tell you what they experience, amirite? – demonstrates very few differences between those experiencing orgasm through direct vaginal/clitoral contact (they squoosh these two in together, which is clearly a problem) and those having ‘thought-orgasms’.

The point of this is that many of those theorising accounts of sexuality and eroticism which don’t match ‘common sense’ – such as those of BDSM practitioners, trans people and people with spinal cord injury – via contemporary theories of the body talk about ‘remapping’ erogenous zones.  Often, though not always, they’re building on Foucault’s argument about pleasure in relation to sadomasochism, which que(e)ries the ‘virilisation’ of pleasure, that is, questioning the account of sexuality not just the focussed on the genitals, although this is part of it, but focussed on the penis-king. In this sense, Foucault’s account shares some terrain with Irigaray’s, undermining Freud’s focus on the penis and its speculuum-sheath, but also helping to make eroticism and pleasure flexible and multiple, that is, understanding pleasure as capable of modification. He particularly discusses fisting and the role/power-play aspects of sadomasochism, but his point is really: there are pleasures to be produced that exceed heteronormative common sense.

As far as I can see, the accounts offered by these studies of fMRI (well, and their popular representations, which are probably the real site of the problem) would do well to maintain a level of complexity in negotiating with the Truthiness of their studies. Not only do they need to be circumspect in the claims they make about the relationship between the brain and experience (the key difficulty with this kind of neuroscience, I think) but they also need to be more thoroughly aware of the specific embodiment of sexuality of those they are ‘testing,’ and the role that this is playing in a supposedly generalisable ‘neuroscience of sexuality’ (and – sigh – we’re back to Ogg and Gaddam territory). In taking a particular cohort as potentially universalisable, not only are alternative experiences of sexuality excluded or rendered derivative or ‘unnatural’, but the contingency of those dominant, ‘common-sense’-compatible experiences of sexuality are obscured – for example, perhaps the connection between the activation of nipples and genitals is related to the sexualisation of breasts and genitals in contemporary Western culture; and perhaps the continued activation of ‘genital’ areas of the brain in people with SCIs says more about the lingering effects of genitocentric sexuality than about a necessary nerve connection to the genitals (the Vagus nerve really came into its own in the Komisaruk and Whipple paper!) . And, as Foucault seemed profoundly concerned to elaborate, the denial of this contingency, when it becomes truth, also works to deny everyone the proliferating possiblities of pleasures (and the political challenge that that brings – but that’s another chapter in this story, to be told another day).


I started this post an age ago, but I need to post it before I post the others I have drafted. So forgive the oscillation between only-knowing-ep-1 and knowing-entire-season-so-far, would you please? 🙂 This is, of course, always in dialogue with what Fuck Politeness has written, given that we’re watching and discussing them together each week. More to come!

As you may already be aware, Joss Whedon has produced a new concept and a new series: Dollhouse. It stars Eliza Dushku as a young woman, once known as Caroline and now, within the Dollhouse, as Echo, one of a number of ‘Dolls’. The dolls have had their memories and personalities wiped away, and these can be replaced at any point with any imprint the technician wants. They are, in some sense, the ultimate in contemporary personhood; perfectly flexible to every context, able to learn anything with the flick of a switch (Matrix-like). It seems that even muscle memory is erasable and re-code-able by Topher, the ‘science nerd’ character of the series. Topher is a young man with a flexible set of morals, and in the first episode, he voices a number of justifications for the questionable ethics of erasing people’s memories. We’ll come back to that. The Dollhouse is run by Adele, terse and tightly-wound, but not entirely cold. She’s mostly efficient, it would seem, but in the opening of the series as a whole, it is she who is ‘convincing’ Caroline to give herself over to the Dollhouse. Caroline, it would seem, feels she has no choice; the implication seems to be that Caroline could either give herself to the Dollhouse or go to prison (but I am way reading into this…). Echo’s handler, Boyd Langton, is less certain about the morals of the Dollhouse, and it is his discomfort that helps to draw attention to the problematic nature of the Dollhouse.

Scene set.

For me, there’s much to be excited about in even this minimal scene-setting. I want to talk about a couple of things in particular: the creation of the perfect object, the question of consent, coercion and choice, and finally the troubling of an essentialist model of subjectivity. Today I’ll talk about the first of these.

So: the first. In the conversation over at Hoyden About Town, some concern was expressed about the objectification of Echo in the first episode. She rides a motorbike and dances around looking ecstatically happy, in a teensy tiny dress that just promises to flick up a lil to reveal her knickers (but, sadly for some, never quite does. Who doesn’t love a tease?). The camera dwells on Echo. This particular section is topped off by a young man saying something about how much fun he’s had with her that weekend, giving her a lil heart pendant, and then, as she walks off into the middle of the night, tell his buddy that the clock had struck 12 and she had had to leave. The evocation of the fairytale is self-conscious, here:  it’s pretty clear he’s pretty taken with her, and not least because she’s pretty taken with him. She’s not reduced, simply and utterly, to the object of her body, as we might be accustomed to identifying objectification. She’s the princess the prince wants, and when the clock strikes twelve, that’s what she’ll cease being. Indeed, this is the complexity that the series allows us to access: the complexity of what Luce Irigaray calls ‘specularity’.

Specularity, as Irigaray (one of the ‘French feminists’, who isn’t actually French) describes it, is related to objectification. Objectification is the process where women are reduced to mere objects of male use and desire; not people at all. Historically, this has been associated with forms of feminism which are invested in a mind/body split, and thus objectification is often thought to be the reduction of a thinking, emoting woman to her body; all else is made irrelevant. The conceptual violence done here is the refusal to acknowledge that women think and feel ‘just like men’. Specularity does something slightly more deconstructive: it observes that man and woman are categories defined in relation to each other. More specifically, man is taken as the yardstick by which woman is defined, and inevitably found wanting: they are less rational, less strong, less able to control themselves and so on and so on and oh god so on. Indeed, it is precisely because woman is defined as derivative, as lesser, that man is recognisable as the norm, as the yardstick itself (and yes, that would be Irigaray’s slightly naughty  but pointed sense of humour, indicating the phallomorphism of language, which sees ‘erect’ and ‘yardsticks’ as positive things). Woman is specular: she plays the mirror that reflects man’s image of himself (as strong, rational etc) back to himself, made to be a mirror that affirms his superiority.

Echo’s name is no accident. Echo is specularity made impossibly spectacular: she is a woman who can be made into whatever is desired of her. She can be moulded, refit, reshaped, to become whoever it is that the ‘client’ wants of her. Indeed, this is perhaps most evident in the interchange she has with the ‘client’ early in the episode. He wins the motorbike race, probably because she let him. And she accuses him of cheating, all sass and fire. This is intriguing, because she’s clearly not a mere object at this moment: she’s more than a passive body for his use. But she reflects back to him precisely what he wants to believe of himself: that a smart, sassy, gorgeous woman will teasingly fight with him, maintaining the illusion that he won straight up, partly to raise the heat between the two of them. She is a mirror, spectacularly.

But to just return to Irigaray for a moment: along with this particular branch of third wave feminism, Irigaray isn’t interested in simply proclaiming the inaccuracy of these truths, and pointing out that women are ‘just not like that’. For this, of course, would presume that women already are something beyond who they are in the social. Rather, she draws a constructionist bow: men and women are constructed through precisely this logic of what she calls sexual indifference (indifference because women are not permitted to be actually different, just derivative, just lesser). In other words, men and women are produced through the social figuring of them in relation to each other. Through (in)difference, woman becomes specular, only ever what man needs of her to remain man, to remain superior.

In this sense, Echo’s position within the Dollhouse becomes a literalisation of the situation of women within patriarchy: specularised even when they are not straight-forwardly objectified. But this, of course, is not the end of the story, as both Irigaray and Whedon know. What is fascinating, already, about Dollhouse is that even when Echo is made precisely what is ‘required’, she always exceeds. She exceeds her specularity, even if she remains within the ‘parameters’ of her job. This happens over and over: it happens when she refuses to simply be the fuck-prey of the hunter in episode 2. To be clear, it’s not that some of the ‘real’ Echo shows through; that, I think, is too simplistic a model of subjectivity for what’s going on. It’s that the woman that she is ‘imprinted’ to become shifts and changes with the situations she is confronted with. She might be specularised, but she is never just that.

And this, too, is Irigaray’s point. Women will always exceed the specular economy, always exceed their definition as not-man, as the inversion, the mirror of men. This isn’t because there’s an underlying ‘truth’ to women that is not done justice to in the specular economy. Rather, it’s because the specular economy itself is shaped through disavowals: disavowals of women’s strength, of women’s capacity for rationality as well as irrationality, of women as other than what the specular economy would have them be. This is the hidden underside of the specular economy. And this is why the Dollhouse-rs are so concerned about Echo’s continual exceeding of their expectations: it testifies to the uncertainty of their control, of their capacity to decide who she is. They think they make her what she is, and she remains static, a mirror. But Echo takes their mirror, shifts it, turns it a little sideways, becomes more and other than what they expect, demonstrates that their control is never complete; and it’s not incomplete because she is someone else ‘underneath’, because each of the women she is produced to be inevitably finds the holes, the gaps, the spaces in which to become more than the Dollhouse ever thought she could be. For Irigaray, this is the unique attribute of what she calls the ‘feminine’, the disavowed underside of the specular economy. Specular woman might be the mere reflection of man, but women are always more than this, because in order to produce them as specular, the economy of specularity must also produce the feminine, an uncertain, deconstructive excess to itself. And this is why women constitute such a threat to phallocentric logics: women are never merely specular, but always more, and that ‘always more’ reveals the inconsistencies, the foolish fantasies, that which must be disavowed in the constitution of such logics.

This is why I’m describing Echo as an ‘everywoman’ figure, and why I think she’s such an important figure in current TV. Every week, she is made a mirror, a reflection to get the job done. And every week (if not with every imprint), she exceeds her mandate. Every week she testifies to their lack of control over who she can be, simply by living out the imprint given her. She refuses to be the hunted; she refuses to accede to a fundamentalist logic which would see death as the only good end; she refuses to allow the patriarchy to retain its grasp on her sisters… Each of these refusals does not take place outside the imprint created for her, but within it. This demonstrates that within every woman, produced as she may be as the specular mirror to reinforce male privilege, she always exceeds this, and the simple living out of this excess—which often occurs unconsciously, and often occurs because of her bonds to others (such as the Rihanna-stand-in, or Boyd, or the other cultists)—has the capacity to upend the phallocentric system. The real threat to patriarchy, then, doesn’t come from without, it comes from within. In other words, yes, Dollhouse does depict objectification. It depicts specularity. But in so doing, it demonstrates that these never do and never can contain women; that there is always resistance possible by turning the system back in against itself. And women have unique access to the excess that can do this (well, women plus Victor, perhaps, in the Dollhouse universe!). When women are more than mirrors, they trouble not only the supposition that they are only the reflection of men, but that men’s superiority is anything more than a illusion.